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Handball shake-upBy Inas Mazhar
Egypt's national handball team took what some are saying is a big gamble, sacking its long-time Spanish coach just days before the start of the Handball World Cup. The move, which saw Yugoslav Branislav Pokrajac replace Javier Cuesta, comes not only shortly before the world cup, but just over two months before the even more important world championships, which Egypt will host from 1 to 15 June. Only time -- and there's not much of it left -- will tell whether the shake-up pays dividends or was a major blunder.
According to Hassan Mustafa, president of the Egyptian Handball Federation, Cuesta's job had been on the line ever since November, when Egypt managed only third place in the African championships, thereby losing the continental title.
"We were ranked sixth in the world when we lost in Africa," Mustafa told a press conference. "We lost to teams ranked lower than us. We felt in danger and were concerned that this was the beginning of the end of Egyptian handball."
The debacle in Africa caused consternation, said Mustafa, and signaled Cuesta's demise. But he had kind words for the Spaniard. "He is a good coach and helped the team to maintain its world ranking in the world championship and the Olympic Games in Atlanta." However, Mustafa said Egypt wanted more. "We are aiming for the world title. We have an advantage in that the championship is being held in Egypt and we will be backed by millions of fanatical fans. We want to rewrite history and become the first nation to win both the junior and world championship title," Mustafa added. Egypt won the juniors world title in 1993, when the event was held in Egypt.
Mustafa hastened to add that Cuesta, who was appointed coach in July 1995, would remain in Egypt, taking over other duties, including supervising the junior national team, until his contract ends in June.
photo: Khaled El-Fiqi
Mustafa ruled out any risk posed by bringing in a new coach just days before the cup tournament and just a couple of months before the world championships, and went back in time to prove it. In 1995, he said, just 45 days before the world championships in Iceland, Egyptian coach Karim Mourad was replaced by Germany's Ulirsh Viller. "The tournament helped us jump from 12th to sixth place," he said.
Mustafa added that Pokrajac would not be starting from scratch nor would he be overhauling the team. "He says he knows the team very well from following it in previous world championships and international events as well as from video tapes of the team's games," Mustafa said. Because of previous commitments as head coach and supervisor of all of Yugoslavia's men's teams, Egypt couldn't get Pokrajac when it first approached him but when his contract expired, he did not hesitate to come, said Mustafa. "We have confidence in the new coach and we hope that we will fulfill our dream of winning the championship," Mustafa added.
This year's World Cup will be jointly organised by Norway and Sweden, which had organised the previous seven competitions. Eight of the best teams in the world will participate in the seven-day championship, to be held from 14-21 March. Group A, which includes France, Sweden, Iceland and Hungary will play preliminary round-robin matches in Gothenburg, Sweden. Russia, Germany, Norway and Egypt will play in Group B in Oslo, Norway. Following the preliminary games in the two venues, Gothenburg will be the site for the semi-finals and final. Countries that finished third will play for the fifth and sixth spots while fourth-place finishers will battle for seventh and eighth place.
Egypt came fourth in the 1996 World Cup in Sweden, losing to France in the contest for the third and fourth place. Egypt's preliminary matches 15 March: Russia x Egypt 16 March: Norway x Egypt 17 March: Germany x Egypt .